RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
When people ask best-selling food writer and editor Ruth Reichl why she works so hard, Reichl replies: Because I can. Then she thinks of her mother, who was not allowed to work. Ruth Reichl has a new book about her mother and herself. NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg reports.
SUSAN STAMBERG: The book is called "Not Becoming My Mother," subtitled "And Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way." It's a brutal, wishful, wistful eventually loving account of a smart, spirited, deeply frustrated woman. Ruth Reichl believes her difficult mother did everything she could to make sure her daughter's life would be different.
Ms. Reichl joins us from our bureau on the West Coast. Your mother, Miriam, she was a wild woman when you read about her. First of all, you, a foodie, say that she was the worst cook you ever met.
Ms. RUTH REICHL (Author; Editor-and-Chief, Gourmet Magazine): My mother prided herself on being able to put dinner on the table really fast. So she would open up the refrigerator, take out a bowl and examine it and say, oh, a little mold never hurt anyone. Scrape that off the top, and then she'd find something else, maybe half an apple pie and she'd mix that up in there.
STAMBERG: Well, in earlier books you've written about her, and you paint a hilariously funny portrait. But now you have pieced together letters, scraps of diary that she kept, notes that she made, and discovered the real woman. She's born in 1908 and truly a product of her times, wasn't she?
Ms. REICHL: Yes, she was. My mother's father was a doctor, and she desperately wanted to be a doctor herself. And her parents said, you know, you're not pretty, and you're an intellectual. And you're going to have a hard enough time finding a husband. And just completely forget the idea of being a doctor. No man will ever marry you.
STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. And so she lived out a life really of complete thwarted frustrations, ambitions that she could never realize. And like many women of that generation, she - the goal was to be married with children, and so she was bored. She had nothing to do all day.
Ms. REICHL: She sat around the house being completely frustrated and miserable. And as I went through her letters, I watched this bright spirit just dwindle and get sadder and sadder and sadder as she gets older, and she's able to do less and less.
STAMBERG: And, as you discover, she was mentally ill. She became bipolar, saw dozens of psychiatrists, took dozens of medications. And so you and your brother - your older brother - did everything that you could to stay away.
Ms. REICHL: Absolutely. I mean, I - one of my earliest memories is of, you know, putting my key in the lock in the apartment and praying that she wouldn't be home.
STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. When did your mother die, Ruth Reichl?
Ms. REICHL: She died in the - in like 91. She was 83.
STAMBERG: There's a wonderful line from Robert Anderson's play "I Never Sang for My Father": Death ends a life, but not a relationship. And I wonder if that doesn't inform you, sitting down now, to do this book?
Ms. REICHL: Absolutely. I mean, that is so incredibly true. I mean, I think that all of us carry our parents around with them, but most of us carry that parent that we invented for ourselves when we're young. And, you know, you decide very young who your mother is, and that's the person you relate to your whole life. And what was so extraordinary for me about going through this box of my mother's letters and diaries was meeting my mother not as my mother, but as a real person.
Ms. REICHL: And what just breaks my heart is that I had no idea how self-aware she was and how protective of me she was.
STAMBERG: You say she sacrificed for you. What does that mean?
Ms. REICHL: Well, I think that the one thing that we all desperately want is our children's love and respect. And my mother loved me enough to sacrifice my respect. She kept saying, don't be like me. I am not a model. And she made herself ridiculous for me.
And there is one letter that she writes to her psychiatrist where she says something about, you know, sometimes it's worth it to be ridiculous. You know, when I think about this with my own son, the idea of making myself ridiculous for him, is I don't know that I would have the strength to do it. But she did. And she did for a purpose. I mean, she did it because she saw a vision of what life for a woman could be and she wanted that for me.
STAMBERG: So interesting that in her late 70s now, her husband, your father dies, and she comes into herself. She starts to thrive. She feels free. She does as she pleases. One of the things she does is cut off you and your brother, and she became happy. That's a tough one.
Ms. REICHL: It is a tough one. She was a very generous and very social person. And she couldn't be a doctor, but she could help people. And she made it her business to help people. She opened up her home to kids. And, you know, we thought she was a crazy old bat, and she just said, you know, who needs this? I can live my life without you.
STAMBERG: Mm-hmm. But you got her back?
Ms. REICHL: Ever since I first wrote "Tender at the Bone," where I made her - I didn't make stories up, but I told these stories about her which are hilarious, and I've had this sort of feeling of bad faith about my mother. And I've always wanted to make it up to her, and I think that with this book, I do. I see who my mother is. I'm grateful for her. And I present her to the world as the difficult, bright, but enormously loving and generous person that she was.
STAMBERG: Thank you very much. Ruth Reichl's new book is called "Not Becoming My Mother." Reichl is editor-and-chief of Gourmet Magazine. Before that, she was restaurant critic for the New York Times. She's a best-selling author. Ruth Reichl works hard.
I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
MONTAGNE: And you can read the first chapter of Ruth Reichl's memoir on our Web site at npr.org.
You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
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And I'm Steve Inskeep in Detroit.